Sunday, November 29, 2009
The Lavender Villa
Gordon the Lavender Villa Boy
From a window seat a gaunt jet-glittering lady stiffly arose and introduced herself as the governess of Mr. Lavender’s nephew. Gradus mentioned his eagerness to see Lavender’s sensational collection: this aptly defined its pictures of love-making in orchards, but the governess hastened to confess her total ignorance of her employer’s hobbies and treasures and suggested the visitor’s taking a look at the garden: “Gordon will show you his favorite flowers,” she said, and called into the next room “Gordon!” Rather reluctantly there came out a slender but strong-looking lad of fourteen or fifteen dyed a nectarine hue by the sun. He had nothing on save a leopard-spotted loincloth.—Pale Fire
Gordon in the Garden
Zembla Ministry of the Muse
Zembla Monument to Queen Disa
Feininger’s Pale Fire
Luxurious Art Deco Living Room
Moderne Zembla Apartment
Professor Shade’s Living Room
Student Ghetto Housing
The Zembla Baths
Wordsmith College Women's Dormatory
The Lolita Laboratory
The Gogol Institute
Lepidopterist Research Institute
Department of Slavic Languages
English Department Faculty Lounge
Department of English
Typical Zemblan Student Garret
Zemblan Ministry of Mystery Novels
Ministry of Zemblan Lit Crit
Ministry of Poetry
Zemblan Modern Living
Zembla Palace of Fine Arts
Zembla King Charles the Beautiful
Nabokov's Index Card Method
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Zembla Foreign Ministry
Thursday, November 26, 2009
I first met both Professor John Francis Shade and Professor Charles Kinbote during my freshman year at Wordsmith College in New Wye (1958-1959). I had both Shade and Kinbote as English professors—and they had me.
The reason I say I had both Shade and Kinbote (as professors at Wordsmith) and they had me is rather simple—Professor Shade and Professor Kinbote were one and the same person. Professor Shade was the one-and-only Queen of Zembla herself—Miss Kinbote was simply a lady in waiting in the court of Shade’s gay imagination.
There’s been a great deal of conjecture and academic pussy-footing around going on lately about Professor John Francis Shade and his lover Charles Kinbote. It’s been a rather coquettish dialog since academe is still somewhat full of the usual “closet-cases”—both well-meaning milquetoast passive types as well as the more aggressive vicious self-hating homophobic variety. Whether sharks or bottom fish—closet cases can be so tiring.
To say nothing of the stultifying Neo-Zemblan zeitgeist that even now ominously overlays the geography of our imagination—all the way from supposedly sophisticated Paris and Berlin to out-of-the way places like New Wye with its innocent little Wordsmith College nestled there in the quaint foothills of primitive backward Appalachia.
Far be it from me to complicate matters with this Postscript to Pale Fire—since I’m sure some will probably say it’s nothing more than a “pale” substitute for the original Foreword by Professor Kinbote. Others will probably say that it’s nothing more than a disappointing pornographic footnote to an already embarrassing Lolita-esque incident in literary history.
But the truth of the matter is that Professor Shade was my lover during my freshman year at Wordsmith College and I got to know him in ways that perhaps would make his colleagues, his wife, his daughter as well as the reader blush with shame—and yet perhaps even they might then begrudgingly nod their heads knowingly with a certain sense of “pale” recognition.
What if Shade were indeed gay—and Vlad Shadow his young lover? What if we went for long drives in the mountains—with a young Zemblan chauffeur behind the wheel? What if we stayed up late at night in his dumpy mansion—Shade reading me in Russian the hilarious story of Gogol’s Nose? What if we played Marlene Dietrich records in the background—smoking a cigarette in bed afterwards?
What if Vladimir and Sergey were lovers—two handsome young aristocrats? One with a stammer late at night—the other pouting and sulking in bed all day? All of Uncle Ruka’s fortune down the drain—the family jewels, the millions of rubles, the wealthy estates. What was it like to be in Paris back then—Nijinsky dancing nude in the moonlight? Sergey, Tchelitchev and his lover—painting sets for Diaghilev and designing the future?
It’s difficult perhaps impossible to realize today in a supposedly more enlightened post-Stonewall period that New Wye back in the Fifties was a very difficult and dystopian time for homosexuals—especially homosexuals in the cloistered hallways and twisted ivory towers of Wordsmith College. The fear and self-loathing prevalent back then made things difficult for John Shade—but hasn’t it always been that way?
Being gay back then meant one thing—Shade needed to burn with a “pale fire.” It was subversive—it had to be that way. I suppose that’s why Shade called his poem “Pale Fire”—inside him burned something tiny, blue, almost invisible. It glowed in the dark like a pilot-light—hiding from the world like Botticelli Venus inside her pale pink mother-of-pearl shell. He hid himself within himself—neither his colleagues nor his family knew the truth. How pale they’d get—if they saw Shade and Shadow in bed together.
After all wasn’t Professor Shade supposedly a happily married man with a loving wife and wonderful daughter—a fairly normal American heterosexual full professor with everything going for him? Wasn’t Shade confident, easy-going and typically straight-forward—as different from swishy effeminate Professor Kinbote as night and day?
Back then it was Don’t Ask Don’t Tell even more than today—especially if you wanted tenure and wanted to avoid the McCarthy witch-hunts rampaging across the land. Our relative freedom today to debate gay marriage and even talk about GLBT issues freely without fear of reprisals and death-threats pales in comparison to the rampant Cold War paranoia and ignorant homophobia back in the Fifties. Hence, the Gradus death-theme in the foreword, commentary and index of the original version of “Pale Fire.”
Back then in the Fifties it was truly an evil Garden of Forked Paths for a tortured gay poet like Shade to even contemplate an alternate sexuality to the norm—if there is such a thing as that. Was Frost a normal poet—was Dante a normal poet? The question of the various shades of Shade’s gay imagination and how successfully he adumbrated it, appropriated it, commandeered it, disguised it, played games with it, discombobulated it and put it all adroitly back together again is how he composed Pale Fire—but how did he do it?
This cool, hidden, slumbering, secretive “pale fire” of John Francis Shade—does the poem give the perceptive reader a chance to appreciate the nuances and perhaps even banal bourgeois attempts of a mid-twentieth century gay man to deploy a somewhat shallow deconstruction of Desire and Denial—finding a new identity within himself through the magic of the gay muse?
As the reader will perhaps discover, Pale Fire is more than a mere “low-Romantic” autobiographical poem—with its telling narrative of unrequited homosexual love, newfound gay romance and late-blooming bildungsroman self-awareness. Or was that it—just another miserable failure?
Beyond that though—whatever it was and wherever it was going and however it ended up on my desk tonight—there is still a story-within-a-story, a gay doubling effect worthy of a Poe or James, a gay doppelganger in the wings, a strange house of mirrors waiting for the reader to get lost in—I know I did and still do. Even tonight as I go over this rough draft—I feel a different kind of draft through my New Wye den…
The poem, the foreword, the commentary, the index—all of these Shadian masks are posing as a man in search of himself. A man with a playful imagination yet plagued with self-doubt—perhaps like the writer Nabokov himself struggling through his many novels with his own shade and shadow—his tragic gay younger brother Sergey Vladimirovich Nabokov who died in a Nazi concentration camp in Hamburg shortly before the end of the war.
“For various reasons I find it inordinately hard to speak about my other brother. He is a mere shadow in the background of my richest and most detailed recollections. As a child, I was rowdy, adventurous and something of a bully. He was quiet and listless, and spent much more time with our mentors than I. At ten, began his interest in music, and thenceforth he took innumerable lessons, went to concerts with our father, and spent hours on end playing snatches of operas, on an upstairs piano well within earshot. I would creep up behind and prod him in the ribs—a miserable memory.” (Speak, Memory)
Sergey the hushed family secret—never talked about in public yet constantly discussed amongst his commiserating relatives, shoved into the back of their minds, stuffed into the family closet. As if Sergey’s lifestyle were worse than the revolution itself—worse than the tragic exile from St. Petersburg.
There were long conversations between Nabokov and his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, about Sergey—the usual shrug and mock-dismay that “I simply can’t understand it—his homosexuality, his love of operas, his gay Parisian friends, his Austrian lover, etc.” Both of them knowing all too well about the flamboyant gay proclivities of their wealthy Uncle “Ruka” Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov—who ended up bequeathing young Vladimir a million dollars, a country estate and two thousand acres of wilderness and peatbog.
Years later Nabokov’s troubled inner dialog about Sergey, Uncle Ruka and the problem of gay consciousness would still be going on—coming out in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Ada, Lolita, as well as other novels and Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. But especially within the pages of Pale Fire—with the endless Zemblan dialog between the poem and the labyrinthine commentary going on and on…
All of this runs through my mind tonight in my study—just as it ran through Shade’s mind, Nabokov’s mind, Kinbote’s mind, Sybil and Hazel’s mind. Isn't it all one mind with the same delicate thread of “pale fire” running through it—the “pale fire” of gay love, the heart in conflict with itself and the struggles of the homosexual imagination?
“But then, who are you?” the reader might ask. Am I, Vlad Shadow, not simply the palest shade of all—the palest inkling of the pale fire that courses through the text? Am I not simply another mask, another fictional nuance of Professor Shade’s gay dialogic imagination? Was I really his student at Wordsmith College back then in the Fifties—was I actually his lover that fateful academic year of 1958-1959 in New Wye?
I’ll let the reader answer those questions and all the other questions that are moiling about inside Shade’s poem. And then I’m sure there will be even more questions, laments, conjectures and criticism about the new version of Shade’s poem I presented for the “readerly imagination” to examine and now this lowly failure of a Postscript.
But the point I’d like to make at the close of this Postscript is that it was a “writerly imagination” that first spoke through me during the composition of this new version of “Pale Fire.” And that even though the somewhat meandering complexities of this new Postscript—as well as perhaps the somewhat overly-postlush footnotes of my loche Zemblan Commentary—seem to divagate and ramble on forever without any rhyme (in heroic couplets) or reason (what’s that?)—that there is indeed a contrapuntal theme to this new poem and commentary—that there’s a texture to its topsy-turvy coincidences, a web of sense to its seemingly flimsy nonsense, a kind of correlated pattern to its twisted shadow-play, a sullen golden Ariadnian thread of flexed artistry moving through its meandering labyrinthine text, playing a subtle game of words and worlds—promoting pawns to ivory unicorns and ebon fauns?
And yet I don’t want to bore or provoke the reader’s expectations beyond Charles Kinbote’s queenly ornamentation, beyond John Shade’s exquisite poetic wordplay—or attempt to provide any kind of quick solution to any lit crit problem or come up with any spiffy lube-job denouement like the one by the handsome boy at the Wordsmith Jiffy-Lube, for example, who maintained Shade’s dumpy Mercedes and who Shade was very fond of there in New Wye. After all, Professor Shade was no angel—the reader probably knew that from the very beginning. No more than Professor Kinbote was an angel—other than a fallen one.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The Real Life of Sergey Nabokov
PLAYING BRIDGE WITH PRINCESS ZINAIDA
“But, my dear, how did you ever get such a wild thought into your head?” chimed Princess Zinaida Shakhovskaya.
Princess Zinaida reminded me of Martita Hunt playing the Grand Duchess Elise Lupavinova in Anastasia. She was such a flighty thing—full of gossip.
“Why, after all, my dear, one could write—I don’t know—say, about the life of so many other gay Russian émigrés?”
She paused a moment—looking up at the ceiling. Her elegant cigarette-holder was long and slender—designed by Erte with black onyx, mother of pearl, gold trim and small diamonds. She breathed it in ever so gently—hardly enough to inhale the absinthe-soaked hashish lavender cigarette.
“Don’t you agree, Dmitri?” she asked. “Something more in the orbit of a nice young male Lolita-type perhaps—a young beautiful thing like that young Prince Youssoupoff immediately comes to one’s mind?”
Princess Zinaida Shakhovskaya motioned to her brother Prince Dmitri Shakhovskaya the new Archbishop of San Francisco to close the door and get her another drink. I intrigued her—that and she was simply dying with sheer, utter and complete boredom. She always needed something gay and scandalous in her life—something to help her avoid the usual tiring Parisian soirees. The same old White Russian émigrés and tiresome non-entities.
“Tell me now—why Sergey? Why Sergey Vladimirovich Nabokov? After all these years, my dear, I can barely remember him—he was very handsome and gay but rather elusive.”
Princess Zinaida was genuinely intrigued by presence—her Erte necklace gave it away. Her pearl, pink tourmaline, amethyst and diamond necklace had seemed to come life again—the Madeira and exquisite champagne citrines were glowing again like they did those beautiful nights back in the palaces and gay parties in St. Petersburg. I could even sense the crystal chandelier trembling above us—like svelte stilettos of an icy stillicide. The lights dimmed at the mere mention of Sergey—they flickered ever so delicately… Was I the only one to notice—was there an unseen visitor with us in the room?”
“Dmitri tells me you’re a writer,” Princess Zinaida finally said, peering over her cards at me.
I couldn’t help but notice her long thin Monte Carlo earrings so gracefully dangling from her old wrinkled earlobes. They were sterling 14K Erte compositions—with tiny shimmering diamonds,
Princess Zinaida must have noticed how much I admired her jewelry—staring at her art deco “Love’s Enchantment Pendant” with its gold, silver, diamonds, black onyx and mother of pearl profile. She was used to it though—in fact she expected it from young louche American writers like me. Louche and helplessly gauche—that’s how I felt around her.
Even more stunning and charming though—her amazing gold/diamonds and onyx “Follies Necklace” epitomizing Erte’s work in both theater and fashion. Based on a cover design for Harper’s Bazaar Magazine—the necklace was truly unique and stunning.
It was as if Princess Zinaida wasn’t a real person at all—she was actually a very sophisticated creation by Erte himself. Her life was simply an extension of his stylish jewelry—it was all she could get out of Russia as the rude Revolution descended on her life. It was all the rich and famous had left—suitcases of smuggled jewelry, some mildewy Romanov memories and the Russian language itself to comfort them in their exile.
Somewhere in the background somebody was playing the piano—various melodies I simply loathed. The instruction to the artificial flowers in Faust (…dites-lui qu’elle est belle…) and Vladimir Lenshi’s wail (…“Koo-dah, koo-dah, kood-dah vi udalilis’...). Was it Sergey playing the grand piano in the other room—or was I just imagining it? It must have been the decadent cigarette smoke—it was growing increasingly oppressive. Yet I couldn’t help but breathe it in—paying attention to tiny details that otherwise would remain hiding in the purple shadows.
The aging sepia gloom of the old apartment in midwinter was deepening into an oppressive Bolshevik blackness—every once in awhile I caught the slight gleam of a bronzed angle, a surface of glass or polished mahogany shimmer here and there in the darkness. They reflected the odds and ends of light from the street where traffic was coming and going—as my drifting mind was already diffusing itself into a somewhat slightly lunar lucidity.
She took a much longer drag on her elegant cigarette-holder this time—and handed it to me. I simply loathed aphrodisiacs and cheap hallucinogenic divagations—but I went ahead and forced myself to take a long toke. Then in the mausoleum stillness of the moment, I felt my nerves shudder as I heard the delicate sound of a single chrysanthemum petal falling onto the marble surface of a nearby table with all the rumbling and crumbling and startling reverberation of a giant boulder falling down from mighty Mt. Olympus onto my poor throbbing head…
“Yes, Princess Zinaida—I’m a writer.” I managed to say it rather aloofly and calmly—although it seemed like somebody else was doing the talking.
“Please don’t call me Princess, young man,” she said rather abruptly.
Zinaida Shakhovskaya's forthcoming death would not made big news in Moscow—except for a radio announcement and a brief Lenta-Ru notice. Apparently, she was always correcting those who called her knyaginya Shakhovskaya—that is, a prince’s wife. She explained that she used to be knyazhna Shakhovskaya—a prince's unmarried daughter. Both words were "Princess" in English—but in Russian there were different kinds of princesses, duchesses and queens. It must have been the last straw for her—in her Lenta-Ru obituary—when she was called knyaginya Shakhovskaya…
I apologized profusely and had another toke. I couldn’t help myself—I was getting totally enamored with her lovely Erte jewelry. Princess Zinaida’s golden minaret ring, for example, with its glowing rubies and yellow sapphires—the jewels were strangely pulsating there on her left index finger as she held her cards somewhat carelessly.
I knew it was rude and uncouth to gawk and stare—but this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ogle to my heart’s content. Just look at that lovely stealthy serpent ring I said to myself—that one really caught my attention. It was an Erte masterpiece of stylishly-crafted exquisite silver coils encircling her dainty little pinkie. It had green onyx eyes that glowed in the dark—and tiny little diamonds along its sides as it tried to slither off her skinny withered finger. Her Salome brooch pendant leered back at me—exuding an evil truly pleasing hauteur to my envious eyes. Never had I seen such a beautiful brooch—not at Tiffany’s or even in the famous ancient Roman Brooch Factory Museum there in gay Naples.
“Yes, I’m doing a biography of Sergey Nabokov, Madam Shakhovskaya,” I said. “My contention is that Sergey was Vladimir’s homoerotic lover—or at least his gay double. I think Sergey blew the whistle on Uncle Ruka’s love affair with the chicken Vladimir—that’s why he willed two million dollars and his estates to the young Volodya and not Sergey.”
I paused a moment—the elegant Erte cigarette holder guiding my thoughts like the baton of some maestro. I shared with Princess Zinaida my thoughts about the two young Nabokov aristocrats—how they like all adolescent boys were caught up in a kind of gay sibling rivalry there in Rozhestveno, Berlin, Paris, Cambridge—and even for heaven’s sake there at Wordsmith College in New Wye Appalachia.
I elucidated magnificently on my projected magnificent gay opus—delineating how Vladimir had done the same thing with Lolita, Pale Fire, The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading, Despair and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
It was as if somebody else was giving the long and convoluted lecture—as if the card deck itself were saying it. In fact, I had the distinct sensation the deck I was shuffling was actually alive—I wasn’t shuffling it but rather it was shuffling me. I also sensed the deck was a woman—she was the one doing the talking. The strange deck of cards was crooked and it had a real name—her name was Adelaida Ivanovna. She was bored with Bridge—she preferred tavern games with young ruffians, thieves and crooks. Young handsome types with long slang skaz names like Zamukhryshkinseems and Zakhmuryshkin. There was an air of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and “The Gamblers” in the room—I even noticed Princess Zinaida’s nose was getting larger and larger. I even told them the real identity of Gogol’s Nose—they looked at me in dazed shock and amazement. I could tell they were thinking they’d underestimated me—I wasn’t a young writer at all. I was a Dostoyevsky madman—surely I was an insane Zemblan con-artist in disguise?
“Sergey was Vladimir’s shadowy doppelganger—his better queer half. Vladimir spent the rest of his life—wrestling down by the river like Jacob with his Angel. Sergey was the dark Angel—Vladimir’s bruised thigh was his oeuvre of dark troubling novels.” That’s how I concluded my literary discussion—I paused quietly, examining their faces.
Princess Zinaida Shakhovskaya smiled…
Prince Dmitri the Archbishop of San Francisco also smiled knowingly—mentioning how Sergey showed up at Mass in full drag with mascara and eye-shadow. Dmitri was no blue-nose—he knew secrets about the Vatican and Taormina that would make even Jacob’s angel blush.
“Well said, my dear boy—which is to say the very least—exquisitely enigmatic,” remarked the other guest. He was Professor Boydovitch—a well-known University Distinguished Botkin Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Gawkland.
Professor Boydovitch sipped his martini—playing nonchalantly with his talking cards. He was working on a new book himself—about Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the poem of Vladislav Khodasevich inside it. It was the “Ballada” poem—the one that Nabokov had translated for New Directions back it 1941. Nabokov admired Khodasevich very much—both as a sympathetic reviewer of The Defense and as a fellow poet. By alluding to Khodasevich in Pale Fire—the grateful Vladimir was insuring that “Ballada” and Khodasevich’s poetry would survive longer than most émigré literature within the confines of the 999 lines of the Shade poem.
Princess Zinaida was no slacker herself—her naughty long-awaited tell-all biography—In Search of Uncle Ruka—had been published by La Presse Libre in Russian V poiskakh Uncle Ruka in 1979. Professor Boydovitch had done an exquisite translation of the book—it was full of revealing photos, letters and postcards from Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov to young Vladimir over the years. Suppressed Egyptian ones, for example.
The first shocking chapters had come out in The New Yorker. Professor Boydyshevski—also the author of an extensively large twelve-tome biography of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev—nodding knowingly when I mentioned the fascinating influence of Uncle Ruka and Vladimir’s early literary interests (see Speak, Memory). As well as Uncle Ruka’s (Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov) influence on Sergey’s life as well—despite Vladimir’s insistence that Uncle Ruka wasn’t interested in Sergey. They went to operas together and concerts—Sergey played the piano and Vasiliy sang long Proustian romances to the amber vineyards below and the empurpled mountains in the distance. Flights of doves striating the tender sky—a hush falling over the terrace at his Pau castle. Uncle Ruka even taught Sergey to stutter better—and how to do it stylishly.
But Vladimir had to be the favorite with not only his gay uncle—but his parents as well. The question was why and how—and what for? One of my sources said that the Nabokov’s first child was stillborn—that’s why they spoiled Vladimir who himself had an early sickly boyhood. Sergey had a Caesarian birth—making him older-appearing and more mature than Vladimir? Two boys—and the difficult years were yet to come.
But all that was detail work—I had more research to do in the morning. I needed to track down the “doll-house” apartment that Sergey and Pavel Tchelitchev lived in during their productive days in Paris designing sets for Diaghilev and Stravinsky. Then I had to catch a flight to Innsbruck Austria—and Schloss Weissenstein.
Princess Zinaida pretended to be in mock-boredom most of the time—it was just a tiny little aristocratic facade she put up like a Japanese fan to obscure her actual conniving decadent schemings. Soon we got down to the dirty details—the kind of gossip that only queer cognoscenti know and share…
We discussed Sergei Nabokov and his handsome young lover Hermann Thieme—and their hauntingly tragic love affair. Even Vladimir liked Hermann—perhaps too much. Princess Zinaida filled me in on the dirt, excuse me, the juicy gossip.
It was quite revealing to the Princess one evening in Paris—when Vladimir turned to Hermann and winked knowingly at him. He felt him up and called him Sergey’s well-endowed “husband.” For a brief romantic panicky second Hermann was suddenly caught sexually between two worlds—the two worlds of this fascinating pair of stunningly goodlooking young aristocrats exiled from a life of Russian wealth and untold luxury.
Both of them so very talented and charming in exquisitely different ways. One arrogant and aloof—the other resigned and gay. Both calmly smoking cigarettes—both of them coolly examining him there in Pavel Tchelitchev’s apartment. The Nabokov boys were like two facets in a Erte snake-ring of black onyx, gold & diamonds—the sunlight catching the sleek ring’s stylish double-headed Russian eagle with the last golden burst of a dying empire’s sunset rays.
LETTER TO HERMANN THIEME
“Where Rubloo’s colors ooze from the icons”
How I miss you—words cannot describe my loneliness.
The long summer days we spent together lounging around the castle—playing tennis and bridge with your parents.
It was so gay—compared with Berlin. I still feel simply exquisitely suffocated with love—your lovely embrace a moonlight sonata on the terrace beneath the stars….
The nights we spent together in your bedroom—listening to the strains of The Firebird coming through the window at Schloss Weinssenstein.
Can such a fairy tale really be true—was I just dreaming I was in love?
The tiny Alpine village of Matrei im Osttirol near Innsbruck—I can still see it now. Visiting the taverns—all the cute blondes! Then playing tennis—wearing tuxedos for dinner.
Your charming face—the way you kissed me on the staircase beneath Apollo’s gaze.
I keep a photo of you on my nightstand—Berlin just doesn’t seem so bleak and threatening that way. I’ll be joining Tchelitchev in Paris this weekend.
Please hurry—Diaghilev is getting impatient to finally meet you.
Wishing you were here with me—my dearest Hermann.
Your abject Russian serf—
LETTER FROM HERMANN THIEME
“Ah, it’s good when the twilight mocks us”
There are people like Vladimir who don’t understand us. .
They never will—even though they want to know the secret to our happiness.
They find completely incomprehensible the kind of love we have for each other.
It’s so natural for both of us—it’s like breathing in and out or flying to the moon.
They’re jealous fools—especially your brother Vladimir.
You and Vladimir—how could two brothers be so different?
Both of you so extremely handsome—could I have fallen in love with Volodya too?
How could I knowing you’re the real one—Volodya is just your shadow.
His neurosis is so telling—are all poets that way?
You worry too much that I’ll break your heart, dear one.
Innsbruck is insufferable without you.
I will always love you, dearest Sergey—but you must be brave.
My dearest Russian prince—I am forever your loving
LETTER FROM SEBASTIAN KNIGHT TO PROFESSOR KINBOTE
“I have Sebastian’s aversion to postal phenomena.”
—The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
Dear Professor Charles Kinbote,
Thank you for your recent letter in regard to Sergey Nabokov.
As an esteemed English professor at the University of Zembla, I’m sure you sense my hesitation in even attempting to describe Sergey’s love-life with any kind of academically methodical continuity since it would be utterly impossible—something normally achievable only if Sergey Nabokov were a character of fiction.
Even if I attempted such an impossible task as a fictional biography of Sergey, I would surely end up with one of those atrocious gay “biographies romancées” which are simply the worst kind of bourgeois literature imaginable. Sergey’s life would make pulp fiction blush—his was a classy “poshlust” princess gone bad. And there would be those I’m sure who would point the finger of doubt in my direction—saying I was truly the one to be blamed. An unforgivably louche and sullen unreliable narrator on many levels and within many worlds. I’d be the first to admit it—I’m worse than Miss Gogol…
Sergey was somewhat fond of a few of the books lingering in my modest oeuvre—Albinos in Black, The Doubtful Asphodel and The Prismatic Bezel. They were among his favorites I’ve been told—although I know he was also fond of Miss Proust, Madame Cocteau and the usual Gide-esque French gay intelligentsia back then.
I do happen to have some letters between Sergey and Pavel Tchelitchev dated 1923 Paris—along with a few photos of Tchelitchev’s lover Allen Tanner. I’ll send you a copy of them.
The rest mostly sketches of set designs for Diaghilev—for instance the set and costumes for Ode Charreuse(choreography by Leonide Massine) which had its premiere in Paris in June 1928. That was before Charles Henri Ford showed up—the bright-eyed Mississippi boy (and future editor of View) who, according to Kirstein, possessed a "provocative coltishness, kaleidoscopic curiosity, and faun-faced sharpness.”
It was through Tchelitchev and his cousin Nicolas that Sergey met Diaghilev and Virgil Thomson. I myself was at a literary soiree once with Sergey and Pavel at Gertrude Stein’s salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Tchelitchev was there too—going on and on about himself. I even developed a taste Alice B. Toklas’ famed brownies—although they made me rather dizzy and ill.
Miss Picasso was there too—leering at anything with two legs. I wisely stayed away from him—his mistress having already forewarned me about the vile little reprobate and his disgusting artistic guilty pleasures. “First he’ll gore you—then he’ll do your portrait,” she said.
Other than that, my dear Professor Kinbote, I simply don’t have too many other recollections about Sergey other than he was a charming young man who loved music and opera—unlike his tone-deaf but cute older brother Vladimir.
Sergey was a bit of a dandy, an aesthete and balletomane—very tall, blond. Plus he had a charming stutter like his Uncle Ruka—the only time he didn’t stutter was when he was reciting some memorized poetry. I found him rather sexy—especially when he was playing tennis. He never seemed like a disillusioned émigré to me—he fit very nicely into the gay scene in Berlin and Paris… He never looked back—unlike his brother.
I agree with your theory that perhaps Vladimir was consumed with guilt and remorse about his younger brother Sergey—a rather odd form of literary confession to make to the world but who knows what really happened between them.
Some say it went deeper than that—that Uncle Ruka was perhaps overly fond of the young chicken Vladimir. Invariably taking him on his knee after lunch—while his two young handsome footmen were clearing the table in the empty dining room. Uncle Ruka was always spoiling Vladimir with exotic gifts from his travels, precious books to entertain him, even fondling him sometimes in the coach—whispering sweet nothings into his ear with crooning sounds and fancy French endearments. In his will Ruka left his estates, his possesstions and millions of dollars to Vladimir not Sergey. All of it lost to the Revolution, of course. Was such a relationship the true beginnings of Lolita—did it really start that way ?
I find the photos of Uncle Ruka (Vasily Rukavishnikov) in Speak, Memory to be very revealing—he reminds me a little bit of a gay aristocratic Humbert Humbert. A wealthy, eccentric dilettante—feigning sickness and fainting-spells on the dining room floor after dinner.
The photos of young Vladimir are simply stunning—for example, the one with his father when he was 9 and the one when he was sixteen. What a cute little St. Petersburg dream-boat Vladimir Nabokov was!!! I can see why Uncle Ruka was infatuated with him—along with all the other queens in Berlin and Paris. Perhaps this close involvement with his gay uncle explains Vladimir’s later ambivalence to homosexuality—and his aloofness toward his gay brother?
I sense a certain homoerotic voyeurisme at work here—with Vladimir’s obvious fascination with satire, parody, mock-authorial game-playing and chess-gaming going on throughout his novels and short stories. His poetry is very playful too—much of his juvenilia I find rather titillating. Not often do we find such a chicken—with a silver spoon born in his mouth. Just ask poor Verlaine—what he went through with young Rimbaud…
As I’m sure you’re quite aware, Dr. Kinbote, there are some rather notable literary critics and esteemed academicians who say that the center of Nabokov’s narrative—the eye of the hurricane, you might say—was indeed his brother Sergey Nabokov. They say Vladimir was truly troubled by both Sergey and Uncle Ruka—they were truly his troublesome Doppelgangers. What would you do if you had a gay Doppelganger shadow—hanging around in your head all the time? If I were straight—it could be very distracting I'd think. If I were gay—it would probably distract me even more.
That’s what Vladimir seems to say about Sergey—he dissipates himself pretending to be Sergey worse than
Why, my dear Kinbote?
Some say the pale lavender flame that burned in Sergey—was the same pale fire that burned in Vladimir too. Even now the pale fire still hovers around them and through all the novels and short stories—they’re like the double-headed Russian eagle facing in opposite directions. But then who are we to say—we’re not exactly the most reliable narrators are we?
They say, Dr. Kinbote, that you’ve never really existed—anymore than I have either. They say you’re only the figment of Professor Shade’s poetic imagination—or visa versa that Professor Shade is your creation and that all of Zembla is in your head. I must admit that it makes me feel rather queer to be fictional—and getting a rather professional letter from a fellow fictional character. Even though we’re both the creations of fictional biographies—I still find it charming that one novel has reached out to another novel. Should we call it intertextual discourse—or something more gauche and rude like “skazzy” intercourse?
Forgive me but for a moment I got caught up in a game of words and worlds—thanks to Vladimir Nabokov’s dark imagination. Being Sebastian Knight has been rather difficult for me—but surely not as difficult as your life of Charles Kinbote. The Queen of Zembla—what a challenging thought.
And yet neither one of us would probably exist at all—if it weren’t for Vladimir’s endearing and troublesome love and guilt over Sergey.
Well, my dear, I doubt if I’ve been very helpful to you in regard to your Zemblan research—one of these days I will read your fascinating new novel The Queen of Zembla and perhaps then I’ll understand this world-within-a-world we’re both caught up in.
I trust you’ll have a very fruitful fall semester at Wordsmith College this coming academic year—and I look forward to seeing more of your college-boy stable
Sunday, November 22, 2009
“a discreet ephebe in tights…”
—John Francis Shade
I was shadowing this cute waxwing boy—
In love with the false azure of his eyes.
He was always fainting in my arms—
During my Wordsmith College office hours.
The innocence of a hot young freshman—
How I selfishly robbed that cradle blind.
The manuscripts for my next novel scattered—
All over the desk and over the floor.
Poor tragic Professor Humbert Humbert—
But meanwhile I had my own problems. 10
Vladimir my cute Zemblan Boyfriend—
My exquisite young Vlad Shadow.
Vlad wasn’t the bashful type, my dear—
When he lost it on my desk just for me.
Awkward yet streamlined at the same time—
His legs tight around my cormorant neck.
No matter how many times I said no—
Mother Nature’s endowment always won.
So full of surging young male hormones—
His physique growing in all directions. 20
From his long distended nozzola—
To his abnormally large Adam’s apple.
But mostly I remember his pale thighs—
Paler than snow in the New Wye moonlight.
Standing by the window each winter night—
Letting his adolescent beauty destroy me.
How shame turned his head in the pillow—
So I couldn’t see the look on his face.
How he blushed deeper than a red ruby—
When I squeezeed his trigger. 30
Shooting me between the eyes—
With his smooth pearl-handled pistol.
A long slow boat to China all semester—
Intensely doing my Sherlock Holmes thing.
Trying to find out who murdered me—
The boy, the butler, my ogling eyeball?
Was it my Shadow who did me in—
The cruel stilettos of his svelte thighs?
Not enough gay nomenclature exists—
To possibly describe all the nuances. 40
All the different ways I suffered cruelly—
My eyelids bruised fruit in a still-life.
These footnotes my sad commentary—
The way I kept track of an amazed heart.
Marveling at my cunning seduction—
Capturing a handsome Zemblan Prince.
The fragile trophy of an indoor scene—
Pigeons cooing in the eves overhead.
My favorite young student at Lake Road—
The folds and furrows of his pale forehead. 50
Bronzed by the hot golden soccer sun—
Except where dark garland shadows fell.
His throbbing dark-blue Tintarron vein—
Writhing like a purple helpless snake.
Like a dark waxwing with a broken wing—
Fluttering in my clammy little palms.
A boy spraining his neck just for me—
In the backseat of my dumpy Mercedes.
The house felt it, the solarium groaned—
He got surly and insolent sometimes. 60
Listening to the buzz downstairs—
My wife Sybil fixing tea and crumpets for us.
While behind my door of Please Don’t Disturb—
A fine ancient honey flowing through his veins.
His louche Family Tree gnarled with thick roots—
Half-fish, half-boy, the waxwing golden paste.
Such a moody handsome Zemblan Prince—
What can I do to console your exile?
Opal cloudlets drift by high overhead—
Your mauve lips pampered with a pout. 70
Dismembering you like a gone Osiris—
Then putting you back together for tea.
Twin-lipped Isis making Zembla complete—
Beside the Nile beneath blood-red columns.
Languishing in the languorous reeds—
Lazy crocodile-boys moiling in the delta mud.
All my priests of Luxor down on their knees—
Beneath the swaying twisted palm trees.
The royal barge is docking at the temple—
The young prince back from his long sojourn. 80
A thousand years in a teaspoon of love—
Equal to Fort Knox and all its fine gold.
A shuddering afterwards all around us—
Flaming meteors falling behind the pyramids.
Things so much more vulgar and creamy—
Than the eternal Milky Way high above.
Already very athletic and well-built—
Hidden foretastes of a Joe DiMaggio.
Swinging bats, stealing bases, homeruns—
Everything young Americans are good at. 90
Plus something Old World and plutonic—
All of that I could sense as clear as day.
Nonchalant sexy couch-potato kid—
Bypassing Venice and Taormina.
After teaching my class on King Thurgus—
Racing home to my teenage concubine.
A thread of sweet pain and gay remorse—
Tugging at my weltschmerz heart again.
Then suddenly that old ache of déjà vu—
Sinking again into ancient swan-song. 100
Corrupted and terrified by his love—
Feeling ancient icy shivers up my spine.
Knowing the secret of Vlad’s success—
All his tomorrows inside his funny bone.
Once upon a time (that first morning when
I made love to the waxwing boy in bed).
Thinking there was a vast conspiracy—
Of books and people and hidden knowledge.
Earnestly bent on one terrible thing—
Making me impossibly happy back then. 110
That surely there would be a Fall from Grace—
Worse than Hitler in his Berlin bunker.
Worse than Nixon and awful Watergate—
Worse than Popeye losing his Olive Oil.
Knowing such happiness was forbidden—
Surely such happiness couldn’t last.
The sacred, the profane, the Abyss—
Keeping me up sleepless each dark night.
How I manicured and clipped his toenails—
Giving each toe a delicate pedicure. 120
Worse than even suave James Mason—
With his lovely Lolita nymphette.
The unflinching likeness of his Big Toe—
To something bigger and more primitive.
His little pinky with its gold pinky ring—
Moiling about erect in my moustache.
Each finger, each toe, each bent ankle—
Groping him, feeling him up, soft foreskin.
The helpless paralysis of not knowing—
Not knowing him enough & wanting more. 130
Needing to know him even better—
All the way to Zembla and back again.
A terrifying journey for my tenured lips—
I wouldn’t wish it off on any Full Professor.
It always gave me a bad case of nerves—
So difficult to give lectures with tonsillitis.
It required steel-nerves to confront each day—
An impossible fine-tuning of teen flesh.
Pink and delicate as flamingo sunsets—
Bedroom-eyes the color of bent sinister. 140
Impossible utterly impossible—
The undisguised joy I felt around him.
A nice pair of ephebic loin-chops—
The kind to grab and squeeze forever.
My insidious serpent’s tongue striving—
To outdo even the Linguistics Department.
New ways to do umlauts and diphthongs—
Worming my way up his rosebud rectum.
Making his long eye-lashes even longer—
His sullen peach-fuzz moustache erect. 150
Gnawing his thin cruel Hyacinthine lips—
In ways that would make Helen of Troy blush.
Worshipping him in my Lilac Lane mansion—
My communion with a thimbleful of love.
Sometimes a Saturday Night Special—
A whole tablespoon of Vitamin Love.
Am I not John Shade the Great Poet?
Am I not the Dark Double of Miss Poe?
Am I not in love with Vladimir Shadow?
Am I not a Professor of Zemblan Lit? 160
Am I not broke and getting destitute—
Paying a fortune to keep this Kept Boy?
Unzipping it whenever I get the chance—
Giving it tennis lessons and badminton too.
Taking it out on the town like Gogol’s Nose—
Treating him like the Prince he actually is?
My handsome Rumplestiltskin lover—
Weaving gold in the dungeon of my heart.
Each golden thread glowing in the dark—
Each thread a delicate touché of love. 170
And then a kind of tragic Travelogue—
That’s when the footnotes got down & dirty.
An embarrassing Blue Angel cabaret—
With Marlene singing in the background.
A Zemblan narrator took me through the paces—
If you’ve been there you know what I mean.
“Was that the phone?” I began asking—
Thumbing through my catalog of worst fears.
The same parted lips, same swimming eyes—
How could this male beauty ever leave me? 180
His rosy cheeks, his secret groin all mine—
How could Arcadia come and go so quickly?
Something slithered in the living room—
It was my heart playing roulette with itself.
Kneeling before an altar in the bedroom—
The wind roaring through a marble temple.
The oozy footsteps at the top of the stairs—
A blind date and preview of things to come.
Cool as the kiss of some frigid Ice Queen—
Torqued beauty, an adolescent’s twisted lips. 190
My ogling eyeball the ultimate voyeur—
Murder in the moonlight one last time.
Definitely a film noir Grade B loser—
Whatever I saw I began tasting as well.
The various ointments, the various creams—
The riding lessons he took on my face.
Eyes always averted, never meeting mine—
No time left for games or messing around.
How could a boy so cute and gorgeous—
Possess something so incredibly ugly? 200
And yet it was exquisitely pretty too—
Prettiest thing in the whole wide evil world?
How could a shy Freshman from New Wye—
Be the master of such sublime pantomime?
With me in the act playing old Mother Time—
Bent cleaning woman with slop, pail & broom?
Always ending up playing the Fool—
Disconsolate, sobbing in the men’s room?
“Don’t be a queen!” the wood duck quacked—
“Rejoice in carnal knowledge!” said the crow. 210
“Bail out now!” the bob-o-link’s sage advice—
“You’re a fool to fall for a Zemblan boy.”
Innocence went out of style rather quickly—
With our round-the-clock love-making.
How could I demand everything new—
Resplendently shrink-wrapped just for me?
Surely I should have known the awful truth—
How long would it be before the phone rang?
Young freshmen just aren’t dependable—
Unfortunately they’ve got glands for brains. 220
Soon there was screeching of tires in the gravel—
The lacquered night opened up like a wound.
He was off to some crummy after-game dance—
Or was that just another Lolita-esque lie?
I swore I’d keep him Prisoner of Zenda forever—
In some secret old Appalachian château.
Stuck out somewhere deep in the sticks—
Not even the gauche hillbillies would know.
How my love was returned so shabbily—
New tears, new defects, new miseries. 230
Sometimes when College Town was packed—
Streets full for some foul football game.
I’d wait for him on the library steps—
Reading Miss Proust or pretending to.
Desultorily thinking alone about him—
Desperate to know what he was doing.
Was he tricking with his shy frail roommate—
That ugly expressionless Korean kid?
The one with psoriatic fingernails—
Back there in that diseased dormitory? 240
Murmuring sweet nothings in his ear—
Not knowing English quite well enough yet?
But knowing enough to seduce my lover—
To catch him at a vulnerable moment?
Spreading his skinny legs, looking back—
Inviting my Prince to fuck him silly?
I hardly smiled thinking things like that—
Feeling myself falling into a Bay of Despair.
I had strange fears of losing him that way—
In some morose oriental romance. 250
Playing Mah-jongg waiting for him—
Sometimes puttering with a Latin text.
It didn’t really matter what I read—
It always ended up the same way.
How could a high-brow intellectual—
Find the gutter much more compelling?
How could I read “engazhay” poetry—
When New Wye was a chthonic pig-sty?
Was I casting my pearls before swine—
Or was it the other way around? 260
The bus-stop to Lochanhead at night—
Full of nice young cruisable jailbait.
There was plenty of fish in the ocean—
And the ocean was dark and deep.
But now all I heard was a quartet for queers—
A pirouetting force was driving me mad.
My usually keen instincts had failed me—
I was vulnerable to chicken death-rays.
I’d go upstairs and read a stale galley proof—
I’d sit quietly in the dark den for hours. 270
It was a vulgar time of foolish pretension—
Waiting for his call, woozy on the phone.
Out on the town with his drinking buddies—
After a great victory game with Yeslove.
There had always been a fierce rivalry—
Between New Wye and Yeslove.
Two stupid little college towns—
Stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
Was Vlad Shadow really my Prince—
Was this really New Zembla Romance? 280
I’d always end up in a quiet rage—
Preposterous for a grown man like me.
“I’ll catch the next plane out of here”—
But then I’d always change my mind.
“Was that the phone I heard?” I’d ask—
Running downstairs to catch his call.
The insufferable humming sound—
Like some snickering sea-shell from hell.
No green, indigo, tawny surfing sounds—
No flock of seagulls on the other end. 290
No sudden love beneath the boardwalk—
No moonlit tide to draw us home.
Not even a “Sorry Wrong Number”—
Only a man sitting alone in the dark.
Naturally I felt like a total imbecile—
A pinhead geek in a carnival sideshow.
Worse than Olga Baclanova in Freaks—
Groveling in the sawdust for rubes.
The grandfather clock kept ticking—
Demolishing young roots and old time. 300
“Midnight,” I’d say to myself pensively—
“What’s midnight to youth on the prowl?”
And then there he was at the front door—
Suddenly I knew, I knew, I knew!!!!!
I knew again what love was all about—
The night thawed and I was happy again.
He was drunk, shivering, wet and cold—
He had a runny nose and a black eye.
I got him into bed as quick as I could—
Beneath the blankets he was all mine. 310
We warmed each other up again—
Finally, finally, finally he was home?
But that night I knew it was the end—
The end of Wordsmith, Vlad and me.
Sometimes I lectured in Newshade—
About life and death and the Worm.
Mostly I stayed in my ramshackle castle—
With the iron gate, the swimming pool.
Like most children of the bourgeoisie—
He wasn’t interested in Metaphysics 101. 320
I told him I died every day, every hour—
Oblivion would rule my life without him.
But he didn’t care about such things—
His pale thighs were smooth and white.
Deep inside him flowed an ancient river—
It was blood-red like the Volga and Styx.
He was growing more cells than dying—
His best tomorrows were yet to come.
The girls all noticed how fat his fly was—
His young meat was never melancholy. 330
The way he smoked a cigarette afterwards—
Always thinking about something else.
Nonchalantly contemplating the ceiling—
His left arm cocked behind his neck.
A snail-track down his hard stomach—
Sometimes all the way up to his neck.
Snapping the latex band of his shorts—
Getting ready for class in the morning.
Convincing him to skip class that day—
“But it’s your class, Dr. Shade” he smiled. 340
“Yes, Shadow—yes, Shadow, I know.”
Lavorium, violets and gravestones—
For my crypt in Academe’s Ivory Tower.
Did I expect too much from Paradise—
After all I was just a mere scholar of love.
It appeared out of the New Wye void—
Something suspended in time & space?
Hadn’t I always been falling down into it—
The terra firma of my shame and sin?
Wasn’t I still falling constantly downward— 350
Into the weird Colors from Outer Space?
Wasn’t I experiencing it all over again—
An old reincarnation & a runaway heart?
I consulted esteemed fake mediums—
Floating mandolins greeted me in parlors.
I had séances with old ouija boards—
Peered at tea-leaves in dim teacups.
Beneath a shagbark tree one fatal night—
I had a talk with the Prince Youssoupoff.
“What’s that funny gurgling—hear that?” 360
“It’s Rasputin below the ice, my dear.”
“That’s revolting—how long did it take?”
“The wine, the pastry—then bullets.”
“After the revolution where will you go?”
“To Paris naturally with the other exiles.”
“Do you think he did in the Romanovs?”
“No more than they did in themselves.”
Later came moments, hours, days of grief—
It was a gift to me: a writer’s shadow.
Without it these words wouldn’t be here now— 370
Crawling like caterpillars over the page.
We went to Aruba for the spring break—
We sprawled on the white beach & baked.
We flew back to New Wye after awhile—
The critics were raving about my new book.
A bunch of dreary second-hand essays—
Remanded of course almost immediately.
Wordsmith College slowly filled up again—
Like a sad old Colin Clive horror movie.
Libido started flowing again on campus— 380
But I felt somehow strangely removed.
“It’s alive??? Really alive, my dear???”
I kept murmuring to Igor the Hunchback.
Nelly Miss Thesinger in the background—
Cruising her next Bride of Frankenstein.
“Not the lever! Please not the lever!”—
Boris the Undead Boy her greatest fear.
I wasn’t quite myself for some reason—
Half a shade rather than a whole one.
I tried the usual Vitamin Love routine— 390
Imbibing his blue eyes and freckled arms.
Daily injections of fine Zemblan wine—
It just didn’t do the trick anymore.
I glanced around at the blue-rinse hags—
There at the astute Ladies Faculty Club.
I used to give such spirited readings—
Titillating renditions of Miss Proust.
To say nothing of exciting Miss Gide—
And the incorrigible Miss Verlaine.
But now I felt self-conscious about it— 400
I felt foolish standing in front of them.
Giving readings about it was one thing—
But actually doing something else.
I didn’t feel like talking about Vlad—
But I could feel his Shadow in the room.
I realized then the awful glaring truth—
The peevishness of the queer quotidian.
Like that news story I saw on TV—
A chuck of blue ice fell from a jetliner.
It fell from a thousand feet above— 410
Down onto a Balkan king out for a drive.
His limo stopped for a red light—
Just in time for the ton of blue ice.
Crashing through the Rolls-Royce roof—
The poor King instantly crushed to death.
I decided then & there against text itself—
Everything was surely subtextual.
Between-the-lines lurked the awful truth—
Narrative was just a big fat Lie.
I nervously fidgeted about it every day— 420
The insanely cruel Garden of Forked Paths.
Slowly realizing how gauche it all was—
Miss Aristotle’s sad old lame poetics,
No more beginning, middle and end—
No more nice character development.
None of that was engagé anymore—
Rotting rhizomes now plagued my brain.
Everything became suddenly ornamental—
A sullen art-form of accidents and chance.
A strange labyrinth born out of the blue— 430
A subtle game of words and coincidence.
Terrified by my sudden new insights—
I strode onto the Wordsmith College campus.
Desperate to share with Professor Kinbote—
The horror of my unsettling discoveries.
(Encouraged by his vast literary skills—
A virtual Biographia Literaria!!!)
Surely we could come up with a plan—
To combat this insidious pretension.
This evil orchid blooming in my head— 440
This bankrupt bricolage of awful chance.
Beyond subtle Negative Capability—
Even Miss Keats would be shocked!!!
Anticipating a lively discourse—
I girded my brave intellectual loins.
I barged into Parthenoassius Hall.
Opening the door to my colleague’s office—
Almost having a shocking heart-attack.
A lively discourse was indeed taking place—
But it wasn’t the kind I anticipated. 450
Vladimir Shadow was on Kinbote’s desk—
Spread-eagled and enjoying himself.
My decent trusting Professor Kinbote—
Engaged in obscene oral intercourse!!!
I paused a moment taking it all in—
It was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.
Hoping for some kind of decent solace—
To salve my savage heart’s discontent.
I’d come for my colleague’s assistance—
To ferret out the true meaning of it all. 460
Only to be faced with an even worse truth—
The awful truth of Vlad’s betrayal.
And even worse the deceit of one—
Whom I held in highest tenured regard.
My esteemed academic colleague—
Herr Doktor Professor Charles Kinbote!!!
I closed the door quietly behind me—
I slunk away discrete and unseen.
I scuttled down the hallway like a crab—
It was the last Ding Dong day of my life. 470
Then I spied on male beauty as never
Before—and I cried crocodile tears as
Never before—then I tried to do what
I’d never done before—then I did what
Surely had to be done—some mute command
Testing the performance of my Wordage—
Dropping my pen in angst and agony—
Caught up in a jumble of enjambments—
Would-be inspirations and tacky bursts
Of Intertextual jests—sudden frightening 480
Ejaculations of whorish heteroglossia—
Strange satirical incantations having
Nothing to do with linear thought—
My mind flooded with awful flashbacks—
Assisted by that indiscrete ephebe—
The sudden image of his betrayal!!!
But beyond the momentary agonies of
Cuckold chance and coincidence—
Beyond Vlad’s louche flexed artistry—
Beyond nude unicorns and ebon fauns— 490
Beyond the pulsing pale pulchritude of his
Pugnacious prick and cute pug-nose—
Beyond my mincing milquetoast ways
And stupid melodramatic mendacities—
I slowly began taking a more calm
And realistic look at—
My queer life.
And then a strange thing happened to me—
My delicate heroic couplets flew the coop.
Never to return to save the day—
But without rhyme or any kind of reason. 500
Like the day Little Sheba ran away from home—
Like the Day Bus Reilly Came Back to Town.
I felt like the man in the Gogol story—
The haughty bureaucrat who lost his Nose.
The barber finds the Nose in a loaf of bread—
From then on it’s got a life of its own.
It talks back to its owner in church—
It parades around in a fancy uniform.
The truant Nose causes disappointments—
Especially for the victim’s women.
Once found it won’t stay affixed to his face—
Obviously upsetting the vain owner. 510
That’s how I felt about Vlad Shadow—
It was like suddenly losing my Nose.
He’d become a part of my everyday life—
Breathing fresh air into me each fine day.
I can still feel his quivering nostrils—
Those New Wye nights in the winter woods.
It was a new way of composing love—
Holding the Zemblan youth in my arms.
It was a test for me as a writer—
Overcoming a blank sheet of paper. 520
It was a test for me as a writer—
Getting inside the youth’s blank head.
Teenage boys can be so tabla rasa—
Especially those cute virgin Freshmen.
We didn’t waste our precious time—
As we fell down into the inky labyrinth.
It was a young male performance art—
Much better than a poetry reading.
Maple leaves cupping the topaz dawn—
Standing on a wet lawn with one shoe on. 530
Robins stopping and cocking their heads—
Listening to big fat worms under his feet.
A midsummer sun coming through the trees—
Leaving its stamp on the damp gemmed turf.
His bedroom eyes stained deepest blue—
Bluer than ancient Tintarron in the sunset.
He was a discrete ephebe but abstruse—
All my commentaries are just footnotes.
Dialogs with the young prince my double—
Notes for a vast obscure masterpiece. 540
I was his shade and he was my shadow—
In between us fell the ancient sunshine.
I trundled behind him like poor Verlaine—
He was the Kid from the Drunken Boat.
Then I tried what I never tried before—
Undoing the past through coincidence.
Something I did completely without words—
Letting him dance between me and Kinbote.
Possessing him too tightly wasn’t right—
I didn’t own him anymore than Kinbote did. 550
Surely there was enough of New Zembla—
To inspire us both to new heights.
And so humbly I bowed before cute Vlad—
Yielding to the Will of Gogol’s love....
Friday, November 20, 2009
“those same Bibliothèque
“a Proustian excoriation
of the senses”
The idea of “elliptical self-portraiture” seems to fascinate Nabokov throughout his oeuvre—the act of “vividly recalling a patch of the past” as he says at the end of Chapter 3 of Speak, Memory:
“I have reason to believe that the almost pathological keenness of the retrospective faculty is a hereditary one”
He connects and compares himself with his Uncle Ruka in 1908 or 1909 becoming totally engrossed in a passage from a French children’s book from his boyhood past:
“Sophie n’était pas jolie…”
And feeling the same sense of his Uncle Ruka’s re-discovering the moment of “robust reality making a ghost of the present” with phrases like:
“the blue roses of the wallpaper”
“its reflection fills the oval mirror”
“Everything is as it should be”
“nothing will ever change”
“Nobody will ever die”
What are we to make of such “selfsame slippages”? Slipping into the self—through other selves? The Fictionalist in me likes the way Nabokov fictionalizes his autobiography in SM (Speak, Memory). Isn’t it memory that’s speaking to the reader? Speaking through Nabokov—as he plays a game of “selfsame slippage” like a game of chess?
And if memory is speaking to the reader in SM—then isn’t Nabokov doing the same thing in TOOL (The Original of Laura) as well as PL (Pale Fire) and L (Lolita)? To say that when memory speaks, it’s simply an unreliable narrator like Humbert Humbert or Kinbote speaking is only in my opinion half the story.
From my Fictionalist POV—the other half, the “self-effacing technique” and “central conceit of the novel-in-ovo”—is Nabokov himself providing us a window into his style of auto-obliteration and Bibliothèque Rose intertextuality.
As Nabokov confides in SM:
“Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore.”
A kind of Glistian “Glandscape” (receding ovals) and “auto-photography” interests me here—in the sense that I see “Index card fiction” as a kind of “selfsame slippage” into my own version of filmic Bibliothèque Rose narrative, i.e., schmoozing as Nabokov and his Uncle Ruka schmoozed their way through those early cloying Frenchified boyhood books of theirs.
Except with my Fictionalist weaknesses and guilty pleasures, the Bibliothèque Rose of my boyhood imagination is decidedly more cinematic than bibliophilic. Rather than Frenchified fiction—I seem to prefer what I have come to refer as “schmaltz noir.”
In other words, my own box of index cards.
Notes and Nabokov photos. More random and Fictionalist perhaps than online Ada. Grade B films from the late ‘50s—that have been called poshlust Snake Pit teenage sexploitation movies. Movies that simply coincided with my own hormonally-vulnerable boyhood imagination—in the same way perhaps that Bibliothèque Rose coincided with Nabokov and his Uncle Ruka’s youthful eyes.
Index card fiction (continued)
“Always the writer, Nabokov
on a bench in the garden of
the Montreux Palace Hotel
using a box of index cards
as an improvised desk”
—Jane Grayson, Vladimir
Nabokov, New York: Overlook
Press, 2004, 107
“…equal parts academic parody, postmodern romance and prose poem, a kind of ancient-world equivalent of Nabokov’s Pale Fire…”
If Nabokov wrote the beginning and ending on cards, saving the middle of the novel for later—then which cards are the alpha and omega cards? Which ones frame the narrative—the inner Laura storyline?
Pondering the mysteries of such a compositional process, I pause a moment and stare lovingly at Vladimir’s calm repose—sitting there in the Montreux garden on a bench. Enjoying what probably every writer enjoys doing—being totally lost in the process of living in another world. Another world—and yet the same world he’s writing in. A kind of Bibliothèque Rose...
Except through the writing—the Montreux garden roses become more than just garden roses. The garden becomes perhaps a Garden of Eden with the fair Oredezh—winding its way following the St. Petersburg-Luga highway. Meandering through floating islands of water lilies and algal brocade. Or perhaps a Rozhestveno rose garden with lovely piano music in the background. Uncle Ruka pink-coated or wearing his opera cloak—singing sad barcaroles and modish lyrics.
Or perhaps young Vladimir heard nothing—saw nothing. Instead of the country estate and long row of Lombardy poplars—instead of the white-pillared mansion on the escarped hill. Instead of the two thousand acres of wildwood and peatbog. Instead of all that around him—another mansion, the tall old elegant Montreux Palace hotel. Would his yearning for his boyhood home—ever recede away? How could it--it was his index card fiction.
The novelist sitting on the bench in the cool Swiss sunshine—isn't he the same novelist sitting in his beat-up stationwagon writing away during one of their long sojourns across America. Always the writer—no matter where he was. Whether Pnin or Humbert—Van or Sebastian Knight. Professor Shade—or the Queen of Zembla. Writing as his way of — "selfsame reportage."
Nabokov’s advice about Pale Fire—cutting it down the middle along the spine. Shade’s poem on one side of the desk—Kinbote’s commentary on the other side. That way it saves time—instead of thumbing back and forth. One can get easily lost in the Commentary—with the Queen of Zembla’s rambling, shambling, shamelessly outré imagination.
Where did Nabokov learn how to be so flagrantly disjointingly camp—so POMO cosmopolitan and gay? How could be invent so many flagrant queens—like Gaston Godin in the French department there at Beardsley College? Or Professor Kinbote or Pnin?
Surely not all Beardsley French professors or émigré Europeans were that way? Although maybe his younger brother Sergey Vladimirovich in Paris after the Revolution perhaps was "that way"—with that Parisian crowd he ran around with. Certainly Uncle Ruka was a flaming queen—Madame Vasiliy Rukavishnikov.
Speaking of fag-baiting—a nasty habit I don’t “normally” indulge myself in like so many Baptists, Mormons and Freudians—one can’t help but admire those lovely portraits on Gaston Godin’s sloping walls. A veritable pantheon of homosexual artists: Andre Gide, Peter Ilich Tchakovsky, Norman Douglas, Waslaw Nijinsky, Diagilev (“Dangleleaf”) and Marcel Proust.
All these gay portraits of the same Harold D. Doublename—an obvious fag-baiting trope like Humbert Humbert’s homosexual doublename. Surely it’s a red herring clue—a sure-giveaway dish of the gay milieu. Just like Humbert Humbert’s doubled initials.
Harold’s D. Doublename—just one small skip and a jump ahead of Humbert’s Doublename. Something to give the psychiatrists in Chapter 9 Part One—a thing or two to kvetch and gossip about. Although they don’t seem to have a clue—and never guess what Humbert’s real secret is. Although some interpret nymphets—as substitute boyz.
In a way, Lolita is like Pale Fire. One could sit at one’s desk—with Lolita at one’s left and the Annotated Lolita at one’s right. And then peruse both books—at one’s leisure. Alfred Appel’s salacious footnotes and fascinating detours and divagations make the same impression on the reader—as Professor Kinbote’s mad meanderings manage to do with Shade’s poem, “Pale Fire.”
Such intertextual games and scholarly cut and paste routines involving the texts of Lolita and Pale Fire are perhaps like the academic parody, postmodern romance and prose poem strategies that might be helpful with interpreting and composing Nabokov’s unfinished last novel Laura.
“Ancient literary texts have a habit of turning up at historical junctures.”
Perhaps the same can be said of contemporary literary texts as well—turning up at various literary junctures. Some real—others imaginary.
So that this lovely stack of 3-by-5 cards allows the reader to work on any section he wants to, then place it “in the sequence he had unforeseen, among the stack already written” — and, in the case of “Laura,” a series of stories within stories could easily keep any reader busy transferring his index cards into more than a novel or two for simply years of personal entertainment and pleasure.
One could ad lib somewhat like Tim Whitmarsh does in his Times Online essay “A Nabokov of the ancient world,” applying the scholarly approach of George Economou’s interesting book ANANIOS: Ananios of Kleitor, Shearsman Books, 2004, to more recent times and books:
In AD 2010 a mighty earthquake shook the coast of California, exposing an underground cavern near Eureka; in that cavern was a precious text, written in “Arcadian letters.” The manuscript eventually ended up in the hands of the emperor Schwarzenegger, who summoned his experts to decode it. Amazingly, it turned out to be the journal of one Appaloosabeachicus, a participant in the Persian War. Ancient literary texts have a habit of turning up at historical junctures. When Nixon the Great captured the Cambodian city of Twot in 1968 AD, one of his soldiers found a tomb outside the city. Alongside the coffins was a cypress chest, which turned out to contain a marvelous novelistic account of adventure, magic and love, much of it set mysteriously in that same mysterious north-Pacific town of Arcata (Arcadia?). What are the odds on that?
llegitimi non carborundum
Kevin Hoover's So-Called Thoughts: The alternate-reality Arcadia – July 8, 2009“Arcata is well and deservedly known as an alternative to the real world. Because, though there are some things you can never, ever do here, people somehow have.
The fragmentary “Laura of Arcata” is an almost blank screen on to which others can project their own fantasies, with the same rapacity that their compatriot soldiers and tourists approach the people of modern Zembla.Krebs (as plagiarized by Sewtor-Lowden) reconstructs the fragmentary poems, so that they become more his poems than Nabokov’s, and reflect particularly his own repressed sexual urges for “a pro from Cornell.
(It gets worse…never Google “Clitor”, the Latinized form for the town’s chief madame)
“…equal parts academic parody, postmodern romance and prose poem, a kind of ancient-world equivalent of Nabokov’s Pale Fire…”Let’s see now. We’ve got this stack of 3-by-5 cards—they all add up to a mental picture of 138 cards. Perhaps 45 printed pages of a novel…But “Laura” like “Ananios”—keeps turning out to be an imaginary object of desire, endlessly recreated by later readers.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Index card fiction
“Language leads a double life—
and so does the novelist”
—Kingsley Amis, “The problem
with Nabokov,” The Guardian,
14 November 2009
“As Laura was unfinished and Nabokov often wrote the middle section of his stories last…”
Ah yes, there’s the rub: “Nabokov often wrote the middle section of his stories last…”
Getting the beginning going—and having the narrative ending firmly in mind. That’s the easy part I’d think.
The hard part, the fun part—that would be the ludic playing out of the Montreux meanderings in the middle. At least for me—that Nevernever land of the Lewis Carroll “Hunting of the Snark” middleground—that for me would be the ultimage chessgame-like compositional fun & games part of the process…
The actual living-day-to-day family life part of the novel—the thing Faulkner talked about and didn’t want to leave. The Sound and the Fury scenario—falling in love young Caddy and her dirty drawers up in the tree. Benjy, Jason and Quentin—that whole ongoing Yoknapatawpha stream of consciousness reverberating through Deep South decadence and oozing south of the border thanks to Borges.
It’s that long lovely “Ada Archipelago” process—that’s the fun part.
Puttering around in the comic evening charascuro of Pale Fire’s “in-between” otherworldly garden.
Taking Lolita to the Bijou—letting her choose which matinee lover she liked the most. Cool ironic James Mason—or blubbery-lipped morose Jeremy Irons?
Meandering in the pale afternoon sunlight—beneath the palatial ruins of the Montreux Palace Hotel. Thumbing through some index cards…
Enjoying another lovely Montreux matinee day—with no class to teach or papers to read. Just sitting out there in front of the hotel alone on a bench. Enjoying what every writer surely loves to do—letting something like Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” extrapolate luxuriously in the clean cool Swiss mountain air.
The Montreux Palace hotel—that charming old chateau, a pile of commingled gloom and grandeaur. Nabokov’s apartment up there in the topmost remote turret of the building—where Peter Ustinov once lived and tromped around above Vladimir’s head. Creating the trompe l'œil illusion of a Fresco dome “loud” painting on its low vaulting—like some church in Vienna done by Andrea Pozzo.
But now, after Peter moved out, how lovely to be there in Ustinov’s apartment—with nobody above him and Vera. Not even a likeable fellow Russian émigré friend.
To enjoy once again that St. Petersburg rich luxury so suddenly taken from him—but given back to him just as that Speak, Memory dream with Uncle Ruka predicted. With the help, of course, of a lucrative Lolitaesque movie contract—and years of American exile learning the strange English language with all its fascinating poshlust peculiarities and Wild West motel peccadillos.
To bid Vera goodnight—to close the heavy shudders and pull the fringed curtains of black velvet closed which covered the bizarre chateau’s windows. To contemplate the lingering chariscuro light of the tall candelabrum standing by the head of the bed.
To peruse perhaps a small volume of verse, propped up by some convenient pillows. To daydream once again as Poe did—about Aurora Lee or was it Laura Lee—or how many other young teenage Lolitas across the land, framed in richly gilded filagreed Moresque, vignetting momentarily in his vaccuous imagination, the life-likenesses of how many young subdued Lauras, contemplating all those confounding virgins bored in the backrows of his boring lectures at Wellesley and Cornell, with Vladimir droning on with Nikolai Gogol-like ogling eyeballs and obscene subversive Snozzola smirks, opining on dreary Monday mornings about poor Franz Kafka’s cockroach transformations, the yawning Cornell football players heavy with their all-American hangovers from the weekend before, to say nothing of what’s his name and those troublesome short stories Ultima Thule and Solus Rex…
Perhaps it’s the best this way—leading a double life. To have lost it all—and then to have gotten it all back again. To have been matured by frightening WWI weltschmerz and terrible WWII world-weariness. To have written all the novels he wrote—to have played all the Pnin chess games he was obliged to play. Rather than ending up a spoiled Russian playboy—in some haunted Europe without the Revolution or the wars. Just think of all the schadenfreude shed for others that he missed out on—that ironically ended up aimed at him instead?
Sadistically fickle fat fate—as Kingsley Amis and Humbert Humbert call it. But cheer up—the reader gets to vicariously languish and die with Nabokov the late great but still dying Russian author in his hospital bed. It’s not just the short story “Laura”—in this new book that’s struggling toward being novella. It’s the whole compositional process—that gets “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes” Ray Milland literary treatment.
Nabokov’s loathsome belly moaning and groaning, his elephantine constipated stomach clogging his thoughts, the heartburn and indigestion from too rich restaurant food, then embarrassment of doing number one and two confined to a bed, depending on some lovely young nurse to wipe his ass, to find himself regressed from his once proud handsome Monarch butterfly status—to nothing but a pusillanimous pupa or lepidopteral larva lump of you know what…gasping for air.